“We too are worthy of a space that holds our dreams, of a space to be who we are, an oasis space in a sea of racial violence and segregation,” declared Michelle Lanier as she kicked off the third annual African-Americans in WNC conference with a keynote address on Oct. 27.
What does it mean to be African-American in Western North Carolina? Members of the Asheville community and surrounding areas gathered Oct. 27-30 to hear answers to that question. Held at the YMI Cultural Center downtown and UNC Asheville, the conference featured local and guest speakers.
The soaring ceiling and hovering archways of the YMI Cultural Center created a meditative environment that seemed to match Lanier’s mood as she reflected on African-American history in Appalachia. “African-Americans have been here for a very long time,” said Lanier, the director of the North Carolina African-American Heritage Commission. “We’re not newcomers. So we can dismantle the myth that we still hear people say.”
She continued with stories of prominent, yet underrated, African-American figures in Appalachian history such as Lesley “Esley” Riddle, a country musician who strongly influenced the Carter family and all of country music. As Lanier’s remarks went on, her meditative tone took on a slightly sharper edge.
“Yes, black people in Western North Carolina, since the 1700s,” she said, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Some enslaved, some free people of color.”
Visibility and representation
As it highlighted many common misconceptions about African-Americans in Appalachia, all aspects of the conference touched on visibility and representation. Darin Waters, the conference organizer and assistant professor of history at UNC Asheville, reflected on the process of bringing everything together for the conference and what it means for the community.
“I think that we’ve all been surprised and fascinated with how much is actually going on,” Waters said. “I mean, the traditional attitude about African-Americans in this region has been that there weren’t many. There are more than people would think, so it’s just a matter of giving many people a space or a forum in which they can present that material.”
Waters, a man of many interests and titles, focuses his work and research specifically on developments of the post-Civil War African-American community in Asheville. He said the conference is an opportunity for this research to be compared and contrasted with others.
“What we discovered was that there was more research going on about the African-American experience in this region than people thought,” Waters said. “And so it was a matter of beginning to bring those scholars together to present that work.”
Much of research partners Katherine Cutshall and Catherine Amos‘ work focused around piecing together a narrative of the life of Sarah Gudger, a former slave from the Asheville area. The two presented their project, “Sarah Gudger’s Journey to Freedom: A Digital History Project/Exhibition,” on Oct. 28 at UNC Asheville.
“We realized that, other than the narrative itself, there really wasn’t much history done on her, people just didn’t ever really go any further than what she said,” Amos, a UNC Asheville history major, explained.
Amos said her work originated from a January internship with the Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville. She later joined forces with Cutshall, a UNC Asheville alumna. Cutshall concentrated on records research, while Amos put the information into a multimedia web page. Although Gudger had famously been interviewed by Works Progress Administration historian Marjorie Jones, no full narrative of her life existed. In her research, Amos said she discovered a rich diversity hidden within Asheville.
“I’ve learned so much about how different this part of the state is and how Asheville’s really just the epicenter of it,” Amos said.
The presentations of Friday, Oct. 28 sprang to life during question and answer periods at the end of each session. Listeners chimed in with their opinions and hummed in agreement with the presenters. A lively discussion of gentrification and tourism arose, out of which sprang observations of parallels between Asheville and surrounding cities with similar race issues. Even when time for questions ran out, some members of the audience were not finished.
Marie Cochran, founding curator of the The Affrilachian Artist Project, commented on the unique spirit of the event before presenting her work, “Testify Beyond Place: A Documentary Film Project.”
“I’m having the best day ever because we’re having open and honest conversation in a very respectful way,” Cochran said, summarizing the moment. “What a concept!”
On Sunday, Oct. 30, the conference ended with Buncombe County’s celebration of “Unsung Heroes” at UNC Asheville. The event, sponsored by the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services, recognized African-American and Latino leaders with a house band, storytelling, and dancing.
With the conference wrapped up, Waters says he already has plans for next year’s events.
“It’s a new movement that’s kind of in its infancy that is trying to get at and understand the experiences of African-Americans in Southern Appalachia,” Waters explains.
He would like to extend the reach of the conference to other areas of Southern Appalachia. By expanding, Waters says he hopes to include more voices in uncovering Asheville’s African-American history, and exploring how that history relates to the present.